Working in Shanghai?
Business Etiquette in Shanghai
Just like you may do without fluent Chinese language skills to succeed in Shanghai’s business world, most Chinese will not expect you to be familiar with all subtleties and nuances of their behavior.
You should, however, take care that you know some basic etiquette rules that will prevent you from putting your foot into your mouth and committing a huge intercultural faux-pas in your professional life. Depending on where you come from, some of these concepts may be well known to you, or they might require a conscious effort to remember.
First of all, try not to forget these fundamental values that are often held in high esteem in Chinese culture, in business life and beyond:
While you may wonder at the crowds in Shanghai’s streets shoving you rudely aside, jumping the (barely existent) line everywhere, or spitting on the street, a meeting in a business environment will be dictated by courtesy and politeness.
- Make sure to dress yourself neatly, in formal conservative attire.
- Don’t slouch, but try to keep yourself upright and alert.
- Avoid staring too directly or pointing at somebody else with your fingers, even if you are simply curious who this person might be.
- Use a none-too-firm handshake accompanied by a slight bow as the standard greeting.
- Respect the concept of seniority during the introductory round.
- Try not to confuse given names and family names. If your Chinese contact has a traditional Chinese name like Yang Tao, you should address him as Mr. Yang. However, he might also have assumed a Westernized name such as Tim Yang. Note that Yang is still the surname, but the order of the names now follows Western conventions. Despite the Western influence, you shouldn’t call him “Tim”, though. Many Chinese people do not like being on a first-name basis that quickly.
- During introductions, you are likely to receive business cards from your Chinese contacts. Always take them with both your hands, study them carefully for a moment, and thank the owner with a verbal acknowledgment and a bow of your head. When introductions are over, put them gingerly in your wallet without folding them or using them to doodle.
- You might get a round of applause as an official greeting or welcome from the group. Applause is relatively common in such situations, and you should thank your hosts and return the applause if appropriate.
Once you have mastered the art of polite introductions, you can progress to actually establishing a business-related conversation with Shanghainese businesspeople. Here are some more ground rules to consider:
- Don’t interrupt anybody while they are still talking.
- Don’t talk over silences, either, even if they start feeling uncomfortable to you.
- Stay on topic.
- Avoid small talk during the official part of the meeting and politics during small talk. Your Chinese hosts may be very interested in your family and personal life at home, though. Don’t mistake their curiosity for impolite intrusiveness.
- Don’t ask for direct opinions and get used to reading between the lines. For example, “we’ll study the matter” or “it’s not very convenient” very often means that your Chinese contacts are not interested in pursuing the matter any further. Don’t wait for an outspoken “no”.
Business invitations, toast-giving, and gift-giving are other essential aspects of business culture in Shanghai and other Chinese cities. They, too, are characterized by many intricacies. You might want to take a class in intercultural skills for China before your departure or read up on such customs in publications such as Culture Shock! China or Doing Business in China for Dummies.
Do you want to find out more about Chinese customs and etiquette? In our Extended Guide article, we cover gift giving, chopstick etiquette, and much more.
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